John Meston: Winning the West

John Meston title card for an episode of Gunsmoke

Another in a series about unsung figures of television.

In the 21st century, it’s hard to remember how popular Westerns were on U.S. television. At their height, Westerns had their own category in the Emmys.

The one Western that stood above the others was Gunsmoke, which had a 20-year run on CBS. And one of the show’s key figures was writer John Meston, who co-created the Gunsmoke radio show in 1952.

Meston’s radio scripts were initially adapted for television. In those early days, they’d often they’d be assigned to other writers, including future movie director Sam Peckinpah.

By the show’s second season, Norman Macdonnell, Gunsmoke’s other co-creator was now in the producer’s chair. Meston was writing full television scripts, either adapting his radio work or penning new stories. Meston would be the primary writer for the TV show’s first 10 seasons, even outlasting Macdonnell, who was replaced as producer during the 10th season.

‘It’s Too Late’

Meston’s scripts included Bloody Hands, a 1957 installment in which Matt Dillon (James Arness) almost falls apart after killing three of four bank robbers in self defense. Tired of the bloodshed, Dillon quits his U.S. marshal job.

For a brief while, Dillon enjoys his respite. He beats Doc (Milburn Stone) in a game of checkers and goes fishing with Kitty (Amanda Blake).

But Dillon, in the end, can’t escape. A gunman has killed one of saloon women at the Long Branch. Chester (Dennis Weaver) rides to the stream where Dillon and Kitty are relaxing.

Chester, uncharacteristically is wearing a gun belt. He hands it to Dillon. No one else is capable of taking the gun man. “I would if I could, but I ain’t good enough,” Chester says.

Dillon attempts to protest. An emotional Chkester replies “it too late for that, Mr. Dillon. Just way too late.” Dillon takes the gun belt. The episode ends with Dillon riding back to Dodge City. Dillon has been dragged back into the life he thought he could escape from.

A Footnote

Admittedly, this post has nothing do with spies. However, I was watching a 1964 Meston-scripted Gunsmoke on Monday night (Dry Well). Like a lot of Meston stories, it ends less than happily with a trafic and unnecessary death.

“What a waste,” says Burt Reynolds’ Quint Asper, a Meston-created character introduced in the early 1960s. As a result, I tweeted out an image of the Meston title card shown in this post.

That tweet got more of a response than I expected. So I figured Meston definitely merited an entry in the blog’s “unsung figures of television” series.

Meston died in 1979 at the age of 64. The New York Times published a four-paragraph obituary published by the United Press International news service. One of the prolific and talented writers on television ended his life as a footnote in the newspaper of record.

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The man who helped establish the Hitchcock persona

Alfred Hitchcock in the James Allardice-scripted introduction for The Jar, an episode on The Alfred Hitchcock Hour

Another in a series about unsung figures of television.

Alfred Hitchcock was long known as the “master of suspense.” But it was writer James Allardice who helped mold the director’s image with the public.

Allardice (1919-1966) wrote all of the introductions and epilogues performed by Hitchcock on Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.

Each week, audiences witnessed Hitchcock making droll remarks, including jibes at his unnamed sponsors. (“And speaking of business,” he says with disdain, “we come to this item.”)

Norman Lloyd, still with us at 103, discussed Allardice in a 2000 interview for the Archive of American Television. Lloyd worked at a producer on Hitchcock’s television shows after being an actor in the director’s Saboteur (1942) as the villain who fell from the Statue of Liberty.

Allardice “was a little fella, he looked not unlike Woody Allen,” Lloyd said. “Actually a little better looking. But…same height, the glasses and everything.”

The writer “had an absolute genius for creating this character Hitchcock played every time the show went on the air,” Lloyd added. “Hitchcock said every word this man wrote. Never changed a comma…What he was doing was precious in regard to the success of the show.”

Hitchcock’s creative team would send summaries of several episodes for Allardice. According to the Lloyd interview, Allardice sometimes didn’t even begin writing until a few days before the deadline but always delivered his work in on time.

To be sure, Hitchcock already was famous when Alfred Hitchcock Presents debuted in 1955. The director’s name had long been attached to the titles of his films (“Alfred Hitcock’s To Catch a Thief,” “Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window” and so on.)

However, now Hitchcock himself was coming into millions of homes via television. No silent, momentary cameos like in his films. The director was now truly a performer. Because the two shows were anthologies, Hitchcock was the only face the audience could count on seeing every week.

And it was Allardice who was feeding him his lines and establishing the settings.

What settings they were. Hitchcock in a giant bottle. Hitchcock holding a ticking bomb, describing it as a dynamite-powered clock. Hitchcock’s brother “George” manipulating Hitchcock like a marionette (a dual role, of course).

Allardice spent a full decade working for Hitchcock on the two television series. (Alfred Hitchcock Presents ran seven seasons, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour ran three.)

“Jimmy had a voice, so to speak that he used Hitchcock for,” Lloyd said in the 2000 interview. “It became the Hitchcock persona but it was Jimmy saying a lot of things about the world through these mad introductions and conclusions.”

You can view an excerpt from Lloyd’s interview where he discusses Allardice below.

Adrian Samish: Flip side of the Harlan Ellison punchline

Adrian Samish title card for a first-season episode of The Streets of San Francisco

Another in a series about unsung figures of television.

There are some people who are destined to be remembered as the punchline of an anecdote or joke.

One such person was Adrian Samish, who had a career as a producer and television network executive.

He’s the guy who had his pelvis broken as the result of a fight with writer Harlan Ellison over a Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea script.

In the usual telling, Samish was the small-minded ABC executive who didn’t appreciate Ellison’s enormous talent.

For example, there’s this review at The New York Review of Science Fiction.

Harlan is in a conference with a “universally despised” ABC censor, Adrian Samish, discussing a Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea episode. Samish’s notes are uniformly moronic. Harlan counters them, losing patience. Samish loses patience, exclaiming, “You’ll do it! Writers are toadies!”

This anecdote was told for years, especially by Ellison himself. It even was mentioned in the obituary published by The New York Times, although Samish wasn’t mentioned by name, nor was Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.

Rarely, however, is life so black and white. With that in mind, this post takes a closer look at Samish’s career.

For one thing, Samish did extract a bit of revenge. Ellison pitched a story for the Batman television series for a story featuring the villain Two Face.

But Samish, on his way out the door at ABC, vetoed the idea. At least that’s the gist of this 2013 Den of Geek post. In 2014, Ellison’s story was adapted by Len Wein for the Batman ’66 comic book. Wein, co-creator of Wolverine and Swamp Thing, dies last year.

After his tenure at ABC ended, Samish landed at QM Productions.

“The acid-tongued, perfectionist Samish demanded scripts so tight, so in keeping with a series’ format, more than one writer assaulted him physically,” according to the preface of the 2003 book Quinn Martin, Producer.

Adrian Samish title card for an episode of The FBI during the 1966-67 season where he got top billing over Arthur Fellows.

Samish came aboard QM for shows produced for the 1966-67 season. He was given the title “in charge of production,” which Samish shared with a key Quinn Martin lieutenant, Arthur Fellows.

Samish focused on pre-production while Fellows supervised the QM editing and post-production operation. Their shared credit would appear near the conclusion of the end titles. Both names appeared separately, with the two men alternating top billing.

Thus, is would appear, “In Charge of Production Arthur Fellows | And Adrian Samish” or, “In Charge of Production Adrian Samish | And Arthur Fellows.”

According to Quinn Martin, Producer author Jonathan Etter, the two didn’t have much use for each other. Fellows thought Samish had no talent, Etter quotes Richard Brockway, a QM editor, as saying.

On the other hand, John Elizalde, a QM music supervisor and post-production supervisor, told Etter that Samish was a valuable member of the team.

“Adrian was one of the good guys,” Elizalde told Etter. Samish, he said, was “brilliant, and very creative, and a victim of his own devices…Adrian was the major-domo for Quinn in the writing department.”

One fan was actress Lynda Day George, a member of the “QM Players,” of frequently employed actors at the production company.

“Adrian was very concerned that a show maintain its integrity,” George told Etter. “He wanted to be sure that characters were understood, that what was wanted by the production was understood.” Etter wrote that Quinn Martin trusted Samish’s judgment.

However, Samish on more than one occasion aroused anger during a run of several years at QM.

Philip Saltzman and Mark Weingart, the producer of associate producer of The FBI, had written extra scenes for an episode that was running short. Samish called Saltzman, angry that the extra material hadn’t been approved in advance.

An argument ensued. “I threatened to go over to Adrian’s office and beat him up,” Saltzman told Etter. “And I’m not a physical guy.”

In this instance, no blows took place. Quinn Martin called Saltzman after seeing Samish in his office. “He’s as white as a sheet,” Saltzman quoted Martin as saying. “What happened?”

After an explanation, Martin reportedly responded, “Aw, you know. People get set in their ways.” Saltzman told Etter that after the incident “I never had any trouble with Adrian.”

Starting with the 1968-69 season, Samish was given a new title, supervising producer, while Arthur Fellows retained “in charge of production.”

Adrian Samish title card for a first-season episode of producer Aaron Spelling’s Starsky and Hutch series. 

Samish, over time, also took on the task of producer of QM TV movies and pilots. Sometimes by himself (House on Greenapple Road, which resulted in the Dan August series, as well as the pilots for Barnaby Jones and The Manhunter). Sometimes with Fellows (the pilots for Cannon and The Streets of San Francisco).

Samish ended up departing QM in the 1970s to work for producer Aaron Spelling. Samish died in 1976 at the age of 66.

Richard Irving: Key part of Universal’s TV Factory

Richard Irving’s title card for a Gene Barry episode of The Name of the Game

Another in a series about unsung figures of television.

Richard Irving was a major figure in the establishment of Universal’s television factory.

Irving, a one-time actor, helped get TV movies at Universal off the ground.

He directed two TV movie pilots for Columbo (Prescription: Murder in 1968 and Ransom for a Dead Man in 1971). He also produced and directed 1968’s Istanbul Express (a sort-of TV movie equivalent of From Russia With Love) and the TV movie pilot for The Six Million Dollar Man.

As a producer, he oversaw Universal TV shows such as Laredo, a western, and The Name of the Game.

With the latter, he produced the Gene Barry episodes of the first season. For the rest of the series, he assumed the title of executive producer, supervising the different producers for the episodes starring Barry, Robert Stack and Tony Franciosa.

Dean Hargrove, Irving’s associate producer for the first season of The Name of the Game, took over as producer of the Gene Barry episodes from the second season onward.

Irving was promoted to being a Universal television executive, which lasted until 1979.

Steven Bochco, working at Universal in the early 1970s, said in an interview for Archive of American Television, that it was Irving who got him involved in Columbo.

“I got a call from Dick Irving,” Bochco remembered. “‘Dick, it’s a mystery show. I don’t know anything about mystery writing. It’s a mystery to me.'”

According to Bochco, Irving said, “‘Do it. It’ll be great.'”

It was. Bochco wrote Murder by the Book, directed by Steven Spielberg, and the first series episode for Columbo. It also was the first installment of the NBC Mystery Movie aired by the network. Bochco went on the script a number of Columbo episodes on his way to being an important writer-producer on U.S. television.

The Los Angeles Times, in its 1990 obituary for Irving, put his contributions into perspective.

In an era when motion picture studios refused to release their old films to television, not wanting to contribute to declining theater attendance, Irving and such pioneers as William Link, Richard Levinson, Norman Lloyd and a handful of others filled the small screen with dramas, mysteries and comedies.

Irving died at the age of 73.

Allan Balter: Gone too soon

Episode title card for The Hundred Days of the Dragon, co-written by Allan Balter

One in a series about unsung figures of television.

Writer-producer Allan Balter (1925-1981) died before his time because his physical heart wasn’t up to the task of powering his talent.

Balter co-wrote (with Robert Mintz) one of the most memorable episodes of the original Outer Limits series, The Hundred Days of the Dragon. An Asian nation hostile to the United States assassinates a candidate for president and substitutes its own double. The story mixed science fiction with espionage.

He also co-wrote (with William Read Woodfield) some of the best episodes of Mission: Impossible. That partnership would last for years, beginning during the first season of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (where Balter was associate producer) and extending to the early 1970s with the television version of Shaft.

The Woodfield-Balter duo made an impact early in the first season of M:I and were brought on full-time with the title of script consultants. That continued into the show’s second season. When Barbara Bain won her second Emmy for playing M:I’s Cinnamon Carter, she mentioned the scribes in her acceptance speech.

Woodfield and Balter were elevated to producers with the show’s third season after Joseph Gantman departed the series.

It would not be a happy time. The new producers clashed with Bruce Geller, M:I’s creator and executive producer.

Woodfield told Patrick White, author of The Complete Mission: Impossible Dossier that Geller went after Balter hard.

“He’d know which acts were Balter’s because they’d come in on different paper from different typewriters,” Woodfield told White.

“He’d go to Balter and say, ‘What are these words? I don’t understand these words.’ Balter would say, ‘Well, I understand them, Bruce.’ Balter was a nebbisher guy with a very weak heart which ultimately killed him.”

After Balter’s partnership with Woodfield ended, he worked as a producer at Universal’s television operation, including serving as executive producer of some episodes of The Six Million Dollar Man and a pair Captain America TV movies.

In 1978, he married Lana Wood, who played Plenty O’Toole in Diamonds Are Forever. Balter died in September 1981 at the age of 56.

William Read Woodfield: Photographer, magician, writer

William Read Woodfield title card for a Columbo episode, Colmubo And The Murder of a Rock Star, which he also wrote.

Another in a series about unsung figures of television.

It’s said that writers inevitably bring their life experiences into their work.

In the case of William Read Woodfield, he brought varied life experiences into his: Magician, photographer as well as accomplished scribe.

In a 2001 obituary, Variety described his work in photography.

Born and reared in San Francisco, Woodfield carved his photo niche during the 1950s and ’60s with published works being exhibited alongside Richard Avedon and Cecil Beaton. His most famous series of photographs were made May 23, 1962, when Marilyn Monroe performed her famous nude swimming scene on the 20th Century Fox lot for the uncompleted feature “Something’s Got to Give.” The photos made the covers of magazines worldwide and proved to be Monroe’s last hurrah as she was fired from the picture shortly thereafter and died 10 weeks later.

The obituary added this:

“A magician since childhood, Woodfield founded the magazine Magicana and employed his knowledge of magic on ‘Mission: Impossible,’ ‘Columbo’ and ‘Sea Hunt.'”

Frank Sinatra as photographed by William Read Woodfield.

As a writer for television, Woodfield, by himself or in collaboration with Allan Balter, specialized in intricate plots. The Woodfield-Balter team was formed during the first season of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. Woodfield wrote for the series and Balter was an associate producer.

The Woodfield-Balter duo perhaps gained their greatest fame writing for Mission: Impossible. Barbara Bain, when accepting her second (of three) Emmys for the show, cited the Woodfield-Balter scripts as one reason why the show was popular.

In Mission’s third season, the duo were promoted to producers. But they ran afoul of creator/executive producer Bruce Geller. They departed early that season, but not before writing a two-part story.

The team stayed together into the 1970s, including producing a TV adaptation of Shaft for the 1973-74 season. After that, they went their separate ways.

In the late 1980s, when Universal revived Columbo (this time broadcast on ABC), the premiere story, Columbo Goes to the Guillotine, was written by Woodfield. The plot included a magician (Anthony Zerbe) who sought to debunk a man, Elliott Blake (Anthony Edwards), posing as a psychic who is pulling a con on the CIA.

However, it turns out the magician and the phony psychic have a secret past. Blake kills the magician. That brings Columbo in the case. One of the highlights of the episode is the magician’s funeral, where Woodfield brings his magician into full play.

Woodield died Nov. 24, 2001, at the age of 73.

William Self: Fox TV to the rescue

William Self title card on an episode of Batman, produced by 20th Century Fox’s television unit

Another in a series about unsung figures of television.

In the early 1960s, things were not looking good at 20th Century Fox.

The 1963 film Cleopatra, while popular with audiences. It sold 67.2 million tickets in the U.S. and Canada. That was more than Goldfinger’s 66.3 million.

But Cleopatra was so expensive, it had no chance of recouping its costs. The studio was going to need a bailout.

The bailout came from its television division, headed by executive William Self, a former actor.

Self’s TV unit took an inventory of the properties Fox held and began developing television versions.

As a result, in the fall of 1964, Fox came out with Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (based on the studio’s 1961 film produced by Irwin Allen); Peyton Place, based on a 1956 novel, made into a 1957 Fox film; and 12 O’Clock High, based on a 1948 novel and made into a 1949 Fox movie.

All three were part of ABC’s 1964-65 schedule. Also, Fox produced Daniel Boone for NBC for that network.

Soon after, Self’s Fox TV unit was the home of other Allen shows as well as the 1966-68 Batman series starring Adam West and Burt Ward. The latter got off to a rocky start as test audiences were confused by the campy approach.

Self’s tenure at Fox lasted into the early 1970s. He became a producer (something he had done before joining Fox), whose credits included 1976’s The Shootist, the final John Wayne film.

Self died in 2010 at the age of 89.